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First St. Paul police officers to wear body cameras are on patrol

St. Paul Police Senior Cmdr. Alex Henry shows the size of a body camera that will be attached to his uniform during a news conference in St. Paul on Tuesday, Sept. 12, 2017, as the first of the department's officers began wearing Axon body worn cameras. Matthew Weber / Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — In the two years St. Paul police spent researching body cameras, the man in charge of the project said he not only focused on what the cameras will capture, but what they might not.

"I've always said, it's not the video we record that's going to create the biggest controversy, but the video we could have recorded and didn't that has the potential to create that controversy," said Senior Cmdr. Axel Henry on Tuesday, Sept. 12, the day the department began rolling out body cameras. "We have been saying that for two years and, sadly, recent events have proven this to be true."

In Minneapolis, when an officer fatally shot Justine Damond after she called 911 in July, officers' body cameras weren't rolling. The department announced soon after that it was amending its policy to give officers less leeway for when the cameras are activated.

The St. Paul policy is also more specific than an initial draft version publicized last year, but the changes didn't come about in response to the Damond case, according to police.

The policy says officers are to turn on their cameras when they're dispatched to, or investigating, any call or incident. They're also to activate the cameras when stopping vehicles, arresting people, involved in adversarial situations and more.

Dianne Binns, St. Paul NAACP president, said her group has been most concerned about giving officers too much discretion to turn the cameras on and off.

"Anytime they're engaged with citizens, those cameras should be on because you never know what can happen," Binns said. "With Minneapolis not having their cameras on (in the Damond shooting), my concern is that it not happens here."

Training underway

Officers in the St. Paul Police Department's Western District started body camera training Tuesday and then headed out with them on patrol.

The department plans to roll out the cameras incrementally citywide, with all patrol officers wearing them by the end of the year. About 450 officers will wear body cameras as part of their daily duties.

The program will cost $750,000 a year when it's fully implemented, according to the department. The cost doesn't include hiring all the additional personnel needed to handle the new data that will be created by the videos, which attorneys will request for evidence in court cases, Henry said.

Dave Titus, president of the St. Paul Police Federation, said most officers "are more than ready" to start wearing the cameras.

"It's a new tool that you're going to have to remember to deploy during very stressful situations and it's going to take time for the officers to get used to that," Titus said. "I think times have changed so much that the officers are ready to share, when able, the dangers of our job and the realities that we face. It's very disappointing, but it's gotten to a point as a society where, if it isn't on video, it didn't happen."

Does policy address community concerns?

The department has been working on the body-worn camera program since 2015. It held community meetings about policies and procedures, researched other departments' policies, and held a two-month pilot program.

Privacy activist Rich Neumeister said he doesn't believe the body camera policy does enough to address concerns that community members raised at the meetings. But Henry said they worked hard to strike a balance between people who wanted officers recording their whole shifts, people who didn't want officers recording at all, and victims' rights.

Neumeister, who has been a citizen watchdog at the state Legislature on body camera issues, advocates for officers always notifying people in non-emergency situations they are recording them, particularly in their homes. He also thinks there should be more leeway for officers to stop recording if a citizen asks them.

Officers are not required under state law to notify an individual they are being recorded. The St. Paul policy says, "If an individual asks an officer if a BWC (body-worn camera) is on or recording, research and experience shows the best practice is telling individuals they are being recorded" and it strongly encourages officers to tell people.

The policy says an officer can stop recording if a victim or witness requests it, as long as the request doesn't conflict with mandatory recording requirements in the policy. But Neumeister said he believes the policy's mandatory recording requirements will generally overrule requests from individuals that officers turn off the cameras.

Some people have also raised concerns about another aspect of the body camera policy: If an officer shoots someone, the policy allows officers to review body camera footage before making a statement to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. Henry said the policy is no different than one that allows officers to review squad car footage in such cases, but he said the reality is they rarely do.

State law requires all body camera footage to be private — and thus, inaccessible by the public without a subject's consent — unless an officer in it causes someone substantial bodily harm or death. People who appear in body camera footage could get a copy only after an investigation is completed.

The St. Paul Police Civilian Internal Affairs Review Commission will be able to review body cam footage when deliberating cases, according to a spokesman. The commission is a panel of citizens that reviews internal affairs investigations and makes recommendations to the police chief about whether an officer should face discipline and what kind.

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